Some of the long term psychological effects of Bloody Sunday – 21 November 1920

As we, fittingly, commemorate the centenary of the tragic and violent events of Bloody Sunday in Dublin (21 November 1920) it is worth bearing in mind some of the long term effects of that traumatic day.

A caveat before you begin to read this blog. It deals only with the psychological impact of the killings of alleged British agents in Dublin, on the morning of 21 November 1920, on two of those who took part in those events – one of the killers themselves and a young intelligence officer who accompanied them. It does not attempt to measure the long-term trauma that was undoubtedly experienced by the wives and children of some of the victims who witnessed the violent deaths of their husbands and fathers. Neither does it deal with the trauma that must have been experienced by many hundreds of the survivors of the vicious Crown forces retaliation in Croke Park on the afternoon of 21 November.

The witness statements, autobiographies and media interviews of members of the IRA intelligence cadre around Collins often convey an impression of dedicated, ruthless and even callous spies and assassins (just read Vincent Byrne’s Witness Statement for corroboration). But there was an inevitable cost involved in the intelligence war. For many IRA Volunteers and British agents it was their lives. But for the men and women working under Michael Collins, many of whom were still in their teens, there was often a hidden and belated psychological cost. 


Charlie Dalton joined the Volunteers in December 1917. In February 1920 – at only seventeen years of age – he was assigned to the GHQ Intelligence unit, reporting for duty to Liam Tobin, IRA Deputy Director of Intelligence in Crow Street. One of Dalton’s jobs was to liaise with some of the spies of Collins within the Dublin Metropolitian Police. Charlie Dalton’s Bureau of Military History witness statement was taken in 1950. It is cogent, clear and betrays no frailities of any kind. However, a decade before, in a disability pension application, submitted in May 1940 by his wife, Theresa, we see a very different Charlie Dalton, one whose War of Independence experience has left him psychologically scarred. It is clear from, for example, a letter from the Medical Superintendent of St. Patricks Hospital dated 3 April 1941, that Dalton is dangerously paranoid. He has been an inmate of St. Patrick’s since November, 1938. The letter informs the referees in his case that Dalton is ‘undergoing treatment for a serious form of mental breakdown. Although he has improved somewhat since admission, the outlook in his case is very grave. From the beginning he has been in a constant state of fear – afraid of being shot, and that he is wanted by the authorities for various crimes. He is acutely hallucinated – hearing voices which accuse him of murder. In my opinion the nature of Mr. Dalton’s delusions and hallucinations clearly point to his experiences in the Irish War as the cause of his mental breakdown.’ Also included in his file is a letter from another mental health professional, Dr. Harry Lee Parker, who has obviously been assigned by the pension referees to examine Dalton on their behalf. 


‘On 7 July I personally examined Charles F. Dalton. I had seen him professionally on numerous occasions during the preceding three years and consequently I am very familiar with his case. I have also studied carefully the file provided me covering all his history.

            Charles F. Dalton is at present completely and permanently insane. He has delusions of being shot, executed and that all around him are conspiring to kill him. He hears voices urging his destruction and his whole delusional state is definitely linked up with his previous military experiences.

            In my opinion such experiences this man has had during military service and particularly his own active part have preyed on his mind and conscience so that in the following years he has gradually lost his reason. I must therefore unequivocally attribute his present state to his military service and I consider him totally and permanently disabled.’

The next document in Dalton’s file is an extraordinary letter from future Taoiseach Sean Lemass. In 1941 he was Minister for Supplies, a crucial role during World War 2. He found time to write a five-page letter on behalf of Dalton’s wife which offers some clues as to the genesis of the former IRA Intelligence officer’s psychological difficulties. Bear in mind that in 1920 Dalton was only seventeen years old. Lemass, at the time, was all of twenty-one years of age.

‘I was associated with your husband during the latter part of 1920. At that5 time he, I and some others were lodging  together at the dispensary building, South William Street. All those lodging there were on active service but not with the same unit. Your husband, Charles Dalton, was, I understand, engaged in intelligence work. He was of highly string disposition and on more than one occasion I came to the conclusion that the strain of his work was telling on his nerves. I first became seriously concerned about him, however, on the evening of Sunday November 21st 1920 (since called Bloody Sunday). On the morning of that day a number of British government agents in Dublin were shot. It was your husband’s to accompany a party of IRA to one house occupied by four of those agents, all of whom were shot. He returned subsequently to the billet at South William Street and I realised that he had become unnerved by his experiences of the morning. So obvious was his condition that I and one of the others took him out for a walk although it was an undesirable and risky thing to do and might have drawn attention to the billet. It did not improve his condition and during that night he was, on occasions, inclined to be hysterical. I recollect that a tap in the dispensary was leaking and making a gurgling noise. This noise apparently reminded your husband of a similar noise he had heard when the four men were shot. He shouted to us several times to stop the noise of the tap and it was with difficulty that he was quietened.

            At this period your husband was very young and his experiences could not but have left a permanent mark on him. I recollect speaking to some of his senior officers subsequently and urging that he should get a rest or a transfer to another area.’

Lemass’s letter is followed by a statement from Dalton’s intelligence colleague Frank Saurin, who played a similar role on Bloody Sunday. 

‘He endured a certain amount of physical hardship being, ‘on the run’ from the British for some three years, but the real hardship must have been mental. You must remember that he was a mere school-boy when he commenced his career as a ‘gun-man’. The continual strain of being sought after and raided for, taking into consideration his youth, must have had a terribly adverse effect on his mental balance; the culminating effect of which, I believe, is responsible for his present condition – I know of no other reason.

            A couple of years ago when he first commenced to show symptoms of his complaint I was present at a pitiable incident which occurred at his home. He became obsessed with the idea that his house was surrounded by men out to “get him”. He bolted and locked all his doors and went as far as to climb the stairs on his hands and knees, thereby avoiding throwing his shadow on a drawn blind to that he would not present a target to his imaginary potential; executioners. When he subsequently was placed in a Nursing Home, a friend, with the undersigned, was obliged to stand outside armed, in his view (he had to be shown the guns) for the purpose of dealing with the same imaginary enemies.’

In March 1942 Charles Dalton, now a resident of Grangegorman Mental Hospital, became a ward of court and his wife, Theresa, was given disposition of the disability pension. Happily in 1944 he was sufficiently recovered to be discharged from wardship and could assume control of his own pension. His Bureau of Military History statement was taken in 1950. He died in 1974 in St. Patrick’s Hospital. 


Mick McDonnell (far left) and some of the original members of The Squad. Vincent Byrne is standing, in the middle of the group. McDonnell had already departed for the USA before Bloody Sunday and Paddy O’Daly (second from right) had taken command of the Twelve Apostles.


Included in the massive Military Service Pension Collection at the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines is the disability application of James Paul Norton who was involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings of a British Army officer named McLean, and his Irish landlord, Thomas Smith at 117 Morehampton Road.

James Paul Norton was twenty years of age when he took part in the Morehampton Road shootings. Norton was later jailed for his IRA activities and was mistreated in prison. The effects of his IRA service led to a rapid decline in his mental health. An unsigned statement in his application for a disability pension outlines the psychological impact of his activities. Norton spent much of his adult life in mental institutions and died in Grangegorman in 1974.

‘As a result of his experiences on active service, culminating in the events of Bloody Sunday 21st November 1920, in which [the] applicant was personally responsible as one of the firing party for the shooting of three British Intelligence officers, two of whom were killed and one seriously wounded in the presence  of their screaming wives and children, the applicant’s mental condition showed gradual deterioration during the months following, until complete mental breakdown was reached by July 1921 when [the] applicant single handed, and without orders, got in the middle of a roadway at the Custom House, armed with a revolver [and] attempted to capture a tender of British troops, armed and carrying full war equipment. [The] applicant was then taken prisoner and subsequently sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment but was released at the general amnesty in January 1922 a complete mental wreck as a result of the harsh treatment he received in Dartmoor prison.’